Argentine boxing finds second wind

American artist George Bellows was sitting ringside when he scribbled the sketch that would become the template for his famous painting of Luis Angel Firpo knocking Jack Dempsey through the ropes. Bellows died shortly after completing his masterpiece, but thanks as much to his artistic vision as the fight itself, the 1923 slugging match between the "Manassa Mauler" and Argentina's "Wild Bull of the Pampas" has transcended boxing and become part of America's iconography. That Dempsey climbed back into the ring and made mincemeat of Firpo was almost overshadowed by the shocking spectacle of the heavyweight champion sent flying through the ropes by a prohibitive underdog.

Another underdog from Argentina pulled a bit of a surprise last Saturday when welterweight Luis Carlos Abregu stopped previously undefeated Thomas Dulorme in seven rounds. In the larger scheme of things, Abregu's unmasking of Dulorme was small potatoes compared to Dempsey-Firpo. Instead of a heavyweight championship match in front of more than 80,000 fans at the Polo Grounds, it was a couple of thousand huddled in a casino ballroom watching a nontitle fight. It was, nonetheless, the most recent reminder of the perils of underestimating a fighter from the land where bulls still roam the Pampas and boxing remains a vital part of a rich sporting culture.

The truth of the matter is that Firpo wasn't much of a fighter, just a big lug who occasionally landed a haymaker and who appeared far more imposing than he actually was. More than 50 years after Dempsey-Firpo, I was lucky enough to be present when Carlos Monzon fought his lone bout in the United States. Unlike Bellows, I was perched in Madison Square Garden's rookery, high above the ring, peering through a pair of binoculars. The only thrill that night was seeing the mighty Monzon in the flesh. Challenger Tony Licata was a good fighter but no match for the middleweight champion, who dismantled him with regal precision.

Most people will tell you that Monzon was Argentina's greatest fighter, and they are probably right, but there are two other contenders for that honor not as familiar to American audiences.

Pascual Perez was a 4-foot-11 dynamo who won a gold medal at the 1948 London Olympics and became Argentina's first world champion by taking the flyweight title from Yoshio Shirai. When he returned from Japan with the belt, 100,000 fans filled Buenos Aires' Plaza de Mayo to welcome him home. Dictator Juan Peron, an enthusiastic boxing fan, was often seen ringside at his fights, cheering him from his front-row seat. Despite Perez's diminutive size, his scorching, nonstop attack resulted in 57 knockouts and an overall record of 84-7-1. How good was he? Well, boxing historian Bert Sugar ranked Perez No. 34 out of 100 in his book "Boxing's Greatest Fighters." Monzon? No. 55.

If the contest were for Argentina's most beloved fighter, it would be no contest at all. Part defensive wizard, part clown prince, Nicolino Locche attracted more fans to Buenos Aires' Luna Park than any boxer before or since. Throughout most of his career, "El Intocable" (The Untouchable) was exactly that: an infuriating target that refused to be hit. This doughy looking man with a receding hairline would stand in front of his opponents with his hands at his sides, making them miss by ducking low or moving his head an inch or two. It was an uncanny sight, and the fans adored him, screaming "Olé!" as their pugilistic matador foiled his foe time and again.

Locche wasn't all defense. When his adversary least expected it, he would explode out of a crouch with looping blows and then escape before a counter could connect. It was a unique style that allowed Locche, who held the junior welterweight title from 1968 to 1972, to emerge from 135 professional fights with just four defeats.

Locche never fought in the United States, Perez just once. Many other Argentine fighters, however, journeyed north to seek their fortunes on U.S. shores -- most notably heavyweight Oscar Bonavena, who twice had Joe Frazier on the canvas, and Victor Galindez, a contemporary of Monzon's who twice held the WBA light heavyweight title in the 1970s. But by the late 1980s, boxing in Argentina was in decline. Things got so bad that in 1988, 15 days after Argentine Juan Roldan was knocked out by Thomas Hearns, Hall of Fame promoter Juan Carlos "Tito" Lectouri, who had just seen his only gate attraction crumble at the hands of the "Hit Man," closed the Luna Park Gym.

"He will be guilty of boxing's death," said Santos Zacarias, manager of then-junior welterweight titleholder Juan Martin Coggi, when asked about Lectouri's controversial move. But boxing was too deeply rooted in Argentina to die, and the millennium heralded a fresh crop of worthy fighters hungry for a taste of American TV money. Brawling welterweight Marcos Maidana and vicious-hitting junior welter Lucas Matthysee have been welcome additions to the U.S. scene, providing the sort of uncompromising action that makes their bouts must-watch television for boxing's core group of followers.

Foremost among the new wave is world middleweight champion Sergio Martinez, a superb, hard-hitting fighter with a fan-friendly style who won the title in the U.S. and has made all six of his successful defenses here. Should Martinez continue in the same vein for a few more years, the time could come when he will be part of the argument, along with Monzon, Perez and Locche, when cognoscenti gather to debate who was Argentina's greatest fighter. In spite of Bellows' best efforts, we already know Firpo isn't part of the discussion.